By Nike Running
With enough of the right fuel, you can run faster and further, and recover more quickly.
Knowing what to eat and when to eat it is key if you want to get the most out of your runs. We've talked to the experts to make sure you have the tools you need to get the right nutrients as an endurance athlete so you can tackle your training plan with success.
Eat smart, run well. This isn't an oversimplification.
"The crux of a good training diet is that you have fuel for your workout stored in your body, and that you refuel to help your body recover from the workouts that you do", says Monique Ryan, RDN, a sports nutritionist with more than 25 years of experience advising professional and endurance athletes and teams. Look at it that way and you are always fuelling for your next run.
While when and what you eat depends on a lot of factors—how long you're running, how hard you're pushing yourself—the commonality among runners is how they fill their plates.
Endurance athletes should get more than half of their calories from carbohydrates, a quarter from protein and the rest from fat, says Ryan Maciel, RDN, the head performance nutrition coach at Precision Nutrition. For carbs, you want nutrient-dense sources like sweet potatoes and other starchy vegetables and whole grains. Protein can come from animal or plant sources: chicken, fish, yogurt, eggs, seeds, beans and tofu. And good sources of fat include avocados, nuts and olive oil.
There's a performance-driven reason for this specific ratio of nutrients. When you run, you burn a mix of carbohydrates and fat, explains Ryan. "The more intense or long your run, the more carbohydrates you'll need", she explains. Carbs are stored in the muscles and liver as glycogen and released as glucose, your body's most easily accessible source of energy.
Deplete those glycogen stores, and Ryan says you're not going to be able to maintain your desired intensity and/or duration. "You're going to hit a wall", she says. According to Maciel, that's typical after two or so hours of endurance exercise if you're not refuelling.
Fat is a source of energy and can be burned for fuel, Ryan adds. But it's stored primarily in your adipose tissue as well as your muscle tissue, and it takes your body time and energy to convert it into fuel (another reason you don't want to let your glycogen stores bottom out and rely on fat in the middle of a long run or race).
A combo of carbs and fat plus that third macronutrient, protein, is critical after your run. "Protein helps with muscle repair and rebuilding, and carbohydrates are going to replenish the glycogen stores you just burned through", explains Ryan. Together, those nutrients kick-start the recovery process.
Here's how to apply that nutrition know-how before, during and after your workout.
How to Fuel Up for a Run
Eat a well-balanced meal within three hours of your run, says Maciel, and you likely don't need additional food.
Experiment with what works best for your stomach, and try to avoid eating high-fat and fibre-rich foods before you run, which can do a number on your gut.
If you're hungry and plan on racing or running in the next hour, and you'll be going for 75 minutes or longer, an easily digestible mini meal is your best bet, says Maciel. "We generally recommend something liquid at this point, like a shake or smoothie, that contains protein, carbs and a small amount of fat", he says. While all those nutrients are important, you want to include a good source of complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains. These take longer for your body to break down, which means the fuel should hit your bloodstream during your run, right when you need the extra oomph. (For a go-to shake, think: oats, peanut butter, berries and some soy or cow's milk.) Experiment with what works best for your stomach, and try to avoid eating high-fat and fibre-rich foods before you run, which can do a number on your gut.
What to Eat During a Run
Planning to run for less than 90 minutes? You don't typically need to fuel up while you're running.
For any run longer than that, you'll want to refuel throughout your workout. Ideally, you'll start with a good meal earlier in the day. This way, you're beginning the run with your glycogen stores topped off, says Ryan. "From there, runners should take in 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour", she adds. Those can come in the form of gels, chews, sports drinks or carb-dense snacks like pretzels. Fuel up this way and your body is able to use not just the glycogen stored in your muscles and liver, but also the additional carbs you're ingesting to keep your tank full.
This advice comes in especially handy when you're preparing for an endurance run, and likely doing a long run weekly. Use those longer sessions to experiment with different gels, drinks, solid snacks or whatever carb source you choose. What works for one runner won't necessarily work for you.
How to Replenish After a Run
You don't need to drink a shake the second you kick off your sneakers. To give your muscles the fuel to repair, however, aim to eat a snack or meal with protein and carbs within an hour of your run, says Ryan. If you want to hit exact numbers, she says to shoot for 10 to 25 grams of protein and half a gram of carbohydrate for every pound that you weigh.
You can take a simpler approach too. "If you run early in the morning, have a good breakfast. If you run after work, come home and have dinner", says Ryan. "Depending on how you're timing your run, your recovery meal could just be your next meal—you're going to get the appropriate nutrients".
A Note on Carb-Loading
Considering how important carbs are to powering a run, it makes sense to fill up on them before certain body-depleting efforts, such as a marathon. But that doesn't mean inhaling bread bowls before every workout or carb-loading for a 5K. The strategy is meant for runs that last longer than 90 minutes, says Ryan, and there's a specific way to go about it.
Shift the make-up of your meals to 70% or 75% carbohydrates, still leaving room for protein and healthy fat, a few days before your endurance run. (This is instead of slamming a plate full of spaghetti the night before; then you run the risk of waking up feeling bloated in the morning.) Carb-loading two or three days before the run allows you to just eat normally the day before, because your glycogen levels are already topped off, Ryan says. This way you wake up hungry and ready for your pre-run meal.
If you're preparing for a longer run, practise this kind of fuelling in your training—say, in the days leading up to some of your longest long runs—so you know what's going to work for you, says Ryan. Come the big day, you won't face any surprises before hitting the starting line.